How is it that Shakespeare’s works have survived despite none of his plays ever being published during his lifetime?
Despite the theatre being banned by the puritans for 40 years after his death?
Despite London theatres being periodically closed down for up to 2 years because of outbreaks of the plague, which routinely killed tens of thousands of Londoners at a time?
Despite our education systems doing more to turn people off Shakespeare than on to him?
It’s miraculous that Shakespeare managed to produce his plays, now regarded as one of the greatest artistic achievements in literary history, if you consider that the theatre in Shakespeare’s time was regarded by religious and civic authorities as a moral outrage that should be outlawed. In 1572 actors were defined as vagabonds, and were often arrested, whipped, and branded. Another big risk for theatre professionals was being put to death for heresy or sedition.
Meanwhile, Shakespeare’s plays have been translated and performed in over 100 languages, including Arabic, Swahili, Cantonese, Urdu, Maori and Klingon, the language of fictional aliens from the TV series Star Trek.
So how did he produce such a successful, enduring product?
The right conditions to drive innovation
Shakespeare operated in a time of seismic social, geopolitical and technological change, much like today.
Today we have smartphones, Google, Amazon, Facebook, crowdsharing, crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, global terrorism, emerging economic superpowers, and robot technology disrupting all aspects of life as we know it.
Then it was the age of adventure, i.e. the discovery and colonisation of new territories and natural resources with all the new opportunities these afforded to ordinary people, the tussle for world dominance between emerging superpowers and religions, all of which were drivers for massive technological, cultural and social evolution.
Innovation is often a product of lucky timing
If Shakespeare had been born half a century earlier—in 1514 rather than 1564—he could not and would not have written his plays, because they arose from specific historical conditions unique to his era.
These new conditions and opportunities include:
The rise in middle-class literacy: Shakespeare was the first in his family to read and write, having been educated in one of the new grammar schools. The appearance of these grammar schools in the 16th century is one reason that so many of the great Elizabethan playwrights—including shoemaker’s son Christopher Marlowe, bricklayer’s son Ben Jonson, and William Shakespeare—were from the middle classes.
The rise of the theatre industry: When Shakespeare was born, no permanent theatres existed, just troupes of travelling players. During the 1500s the population of London grew by 400%, to nearly 200,000 people. This led to an increasing demand for entertainment, especially stories about the exotic places people were hearing about but had little geographical knowledge of (as most of the population never left London).
This generated a new entertainment industry: new products (theatres, plays) and well-paid professions, with their own professional guilds: playwrighting and acting.
The emergence of a new communication medium: English When Shakespeare was born, Latin was the language of theology and science, and Anglo-Norman was used in legal contexts. Written English had no agreed spelling or grammatical rules. There was no dictionary of English. This made the English language an opportunity for wild experimentation and its transformation into a unique vehicle for the representation of thought, emotion, and complex inner states.
Because censorship laws were so severe at the time, it was necessary, according to scholar Annabel Patterson, to evolve “a system of communication in which ambiguity becomes a creative and necessary instrument.” Shakespeare became a master of ambiguity, and, when he made references in his plays to the religious and political controversies of the time, he made sure his allusions couldn’t be associated with a particular time, location or figure.
Shakespeare and Bill Gates: same story
Malcolm Gladwell in his book, “Outliers”, suggests that Bill Gates wouldn’t have become Bill Gates regardless of any natural ability and ambition if he hadn’t been born in Seattle in 1955, which meant he was in the right place at the right time to benefit from a series of unique opportunities that were available only at that time.
Gates went to Lakeside, a private school in Seattle with its own computer, one of a new generation of computers that shared processing power with a much larger computer downtown. This meant he could learn programming without being slowed down by the punch-card process used for computers until just a year or two earlier.
This meant that in 1975 Gates was old and skilled enough to take advantage of the opportunities that opened up with the introduction of the Altair 8800, the first do-it-yourself computer kit, and young, optimistic and energetic enough to take the risks involved in pioneering new ideas.
Shakespeare’s business model innovation
Shakespeare’s original Globe theatre in London, built in 1599, was unique not just because of its peculiar design but because it was the first to be built specifically for an existing acting company and financed by the company itself.
Early in 1599 Shakespeare became a 12.5 percent investor in the cost of building the Globe, as one of the eight shareholders in the company, and helped establish the first successful form of commercial operation for the actors of the time, the ”joint stock company”. This investment gave Shakespeare and the other leading actors both a share in the company’s profits and a share in their playhouse.
Open Innovation, customer-centricity and customer experience design at the Globe
Shakespeare’s theatre was much more similar to today’s film industry than to the modern theatre, in that the demand for plays was exponentially higher than it is today, and the process of writing and producing plays had to be “industrialised”.
A typical modern theatre produces between two to four published plays a year, whereas at Shakespeare’s Globe, a different play was performed every night, and about 20 different plays were produced in a year. Shakespeare wrote at least 39 plays that we know of, writing 2-3 plays a year.
Shakespeare was a busy man. Like the other seven shareholders in the company, he was expected to do everything, from acting and playwrighting, to book-keeping, ticket sales, concessions, costumes, commissioning plays, etc. So how did Shakespeare’s company manage to churn out so many blockbusters?
Open Innovation. A business principle developed by Henry Chesbrough in the 1960’s, which encourages companies to use knowledge and ideas developed outside of the company rather than rely on home-grown innovation, seems like an obvious thing for companies to do, but practicing this principle requires them to take risks with intellectual property, company processes, business models and brand reputation among other things, and is not an easy route to pursue.
We now know that many of Shakespeare’s plays were co-written with other playwrights, including with his supposed arch-rival, Christopher Marlowe. Playwrighting had to be a team effort, in the same way that scripts for TV series and movies are mostly produced today, to produce enough material to satisfy the public’s thirst for entertainment.
Customer experience design and customer-centricity. IKEA is a famous exponent of customer experience design, making the process of shopping for, buying and assembling flat-pack furniture an experience designed to make you spend much more than intended while enjoying the process and wanting to come back for more.
Customer-centricity is the secret of Amazon’s success in selling an old product in a new way, and finding innovative ways of enhancing the experience of buying books (and now everything else).
Focussing on the customer’s point of view
The Globe had no roof so plays were performed in daylight allowing the actors to see audience reactions in real time. The design of the Globe theatre ensured that everything was performed in front of a “live studio audience”, guaranteeing instant feedback and quality control from the audience.
Most of the audience, ordinary people who couldn’t afford to sit in the stalls at the sides of the theatre, stood around three sides of a chest-high square stage. This meant that during a performance there were always large sections of the audience that wouldn’t be able to see the faces of the actors.
How Shakespeare leveraged language to engage his audiences
Bearing in mind that 80% of the audience couldn’t read – and even if they had been able to, Shakespeare’s plays were never available in published form during his lifetime – this meant that the language used in the performance was of critical importance. In other words, Shakespeare’s plays were designed to be heard, rather than seen, and definitely not to be read (something teachers should be reminded of).
Customer accessibility: In all of Shakespeare’s plays you will find, in addition to the verbal pyrotechnics he is famous for, a wide range of registers – ways of speaking – associated with great leaders, pompous aristocrats or statesmen, ordinary people, people in love, people who are planning the destruction of other people, ignorant buffoons, educated buffoons, etc. People who have been traumatised by Shakespeare at school, (and these include Mark Twain, Tolstoy, Voltaire, George Bernard Shaw and J.R.R. Tolkien) associate Shakespeare with over-elaborate, incomprehensible language. In practice, Shakespeare’s plays were designed to be accessible by the general public, and the use of incomprehensible, over-elaborate language was always deliberate and limited.
Something for everyone: At Shakespeare’s Globe the standing audience was usually packed around the stage, so the other crucial ingredient for a successful play was plenty of action, often violent and sometimes incredibly gruesome. Shakespeare’s plays cover a wide range of genres: romantic comedy, horror, biopic, epic, fantasy, crime/gangster, thriller, drama and action.
it is a testament to Shakespeare’s talent with words that he relied on explicit gruesomeness (check out Titus Andronicus) less and less in the latter part of his career, and that Macbeth, one of his most sinister plays, in which nearly everyone dies, contains almost no explicit violence – it all happens off-stage, as I wish it had in the Game of Thrones-style 2015 film of Macbeth.
How to invent successful and enduring products. Act now.
This post contains my ideas about how and why Shakespeare managed to produce timeless masterpieces, with reference to some popular modern innovation practices, pointing out the possible parallels between the moment in history Shakespeare witnessed and lived through, and what is happening today.
Albert Camus, speculating about why there have been only two ages of great tragic theatre (the theatre of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides of Athens during the 5th century BCE and the Renaissance theatre of Shakespeare and Pierre Corneille), suggested that “great periods of tragic art occur, in history, during centuries of crucial change, at moments when the lives of whole peoples are heavy both with glory and with menace, when the future is uncertain and the present dramatic.”
Could this be the next age of great tragic theatre? Is this another century of crucial change, when the lives of entire populations can be transformed for the good or for the bad, when the future is uncertain and the present dramatic?